Tango’s Tantalizing Embrace

For a music idiom that is rapidly approaching the 100th anniversary of its birth, the tango retains a remarkably fresh and youthful persona. Granted, the variant of tango currently in vogue, both in its Argentine homeland and in widely dispersed tango hot zones throughout the globe, is stylistically a far cry from the emotion-wrought version popularized by Carlos Gardel in the 1930s. What is remarkable, however, is that although it is the oldest of many music styles from Latin American cultures that have found broad international popularity, it is arguably the most adaptive to change.

While the bolero, mambo and bossa nova have all recently experienced a renaissance of popularity and have produced a spate of recordings by a new generation of interpreters, their reemergence has noted more for a reverential approach than one committed to breaking new artistic ground. The latest tango revolution, by contrast, has proven to be a genuine revelation.

Examples of the latest thirst for music with a tango vibe are everywhere. Ojos Negros, a collaboration of bandoneon (the small, accordion-like instrument that has become the most virile voice of the tango) by maestro Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner, is one of only two albums that earned a five-star, “masterpiece” ranking by the prestigious jazz periodical Downbeat in its tallying of the best CDs of 2007. Other recent recording projects that explore various shades of traditional and contemporary tango styles feature such authoritative artists as the Bajofondo Tango Club(below), vocalist María Volonté, guitarist Gustavo Mozzi, and jazz bassist Pablo Aslan. Demonstrating the ever-increasing range of the music’s global reach is Tango Around The World, a Putumayo Records compilation of tracks by tango practitioners from Norway, Brazil, Greece, Serbia, Portugal, Argentina itself and elsewhere. The 11 selections range from the nostalgia-grounded take of an ensemble from Finland, where the tango culture has been warmly embraced for many decades, to pop-shaded works from Senegal and other distant locales.

The Bajofondo Tango Club, a loose association of noted Argentine and Uruguayan musicians, has emerged as a major force in the rejuvenation of hallowed regional styles. The collective has followed up its self-titled, groundbreaking 2003 release with the just-issued Mar Dulce. Both albums are noted for their wide-ranging, thoroughly contemporary take on the tango and traditions, their use of a sultry close-up detail of a tango dancer’s legs on the cover, and the involvement of an extensive guest roster. The debut effort, led by such celebrated musicians as Argentina’s Oscar and Grammy winning composer and multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Santaolalla, featured guests from the two lands, among them Oscar-winning Uruguayan composer and singer Jorge Drexler. Mar Dulce expands the artistic input far beyond the Rio de la Plata delta, with such eclectic artists as Canadian/Portuguese pop singer Nelly Furtado, veteran rock crooner Elvis Costello and Japanese bandoneonist Ryota Komatsu present as guests. Dubbed “trip-hop tango” by its most ardent fans, Bajofondo represents the best of the new generation of tango-inspired musicians–superbly produced recordings rich in orchestral textures, designed for both dancing and contemplation.

Volonté, a raven-haired beauty whose stunning good looks are matched by her vocal prowess, returns to a more folkloric-grounded style on her latest, Sudestada. Her previous effort, Yo Soy Maria, featuring the group Tangoloco, explored the pleasing and promising fusion of Brazilian bossa nova and tango. Mozzi, a young composer and arranger with passion for both tango’s past and its future as well as its festive and meditative character traits, presents the music with selected jazz and classical elements on such recent releases as Matiné and Los Ojos de la Noche. Bassist Aslan, currently one of several well-established Argentina jazz musicians in the U.S., features four of his lesser known but equally talented associates on Buenos Aires Tango Standards, a bracing program of vintage tangos, filtered through the sonic prism of modern jazz. All are examples of tango’s most dedicated young interpreters finding new ways to explore and expand this uncommonly dynamic music tradition.

“This music is the history of my life,” says Saluzzi, who, next to the late composer and bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazzolla, is one of Argentina’s recognized masters of modern tango. “It’s all our history. It’s in our blood.”

Mark Holston